Hội An, Vietnam

Hoi An’s old buildings are well preserved despite being subject to annual flooding.

Air Asia recently resumed direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Da Nang, Vietnam. Since they were offering cheap discounted fares and I had never been to this part of Vietnam before I decided to take my sons for a short trip.

There are a number of temples, clan houses and museums which are open to the public.

We based ourselves in Hoi An, a small historic town around 30km south of Da Nang. Hoi An is every tourist’s idea of what Vietnam should look like with rice paddy fields, colourful markets, temples, locals in conical straw hats and so on. Of course reality is somewhat different but Hoi An old town is remarkably well preserved, in recognition of which it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. Once a trading port, the town is now given over entirely to tourism.

Japanese Covered Bridge, originally 17th century but repaired several times since.

Tourists mill around the quaint, traffic-free streets (cars are banned from the old town centre), looking for souvenirs or somewhere to eat. Shopkeepers try to lure you into their tailor shops or sell you a pair of custom-made shoes. My son ordered a pair of Toms style slip-ons. They only took 6 hours to make and were not bad.

There are dozens of good restaurants and cafes to choose from in Hoi An. In this internet age where everyone gets their travel tips from Trip Advisor, there is a tendency for tourists to flock to the same few restaurants but we preferred to spread our custom to some of the less frequented ones and all the meals were excellent (and, importantly, no tummy problems!). The Hoa Vang Yellow River Riverside Restaurant tempted us in with its sign saying G’Day Mate, Tassie Australia, Coldest Beer in Town.

At night the silk and paper lantern stalls add to the atmosphere and old women try to sell candles in paper boats for floating down the river, which are later fished out by kids with nets and re-sold. There is a night market but by 9pm most of the shops have closed their shutters and the streets start to empty. Hoi An old town is not the place for a boisterous night life.

Many of the hotels, including the Ha An hotel where we stayed, provide free bikes for getting around. There are quiet rural lanes to explore close to town.

If you don’t want to pedal yourself you can always hire a cyclo.

Another popular activity is to take a river cruise.

Hoi An has the added advantage of being close to some very fine beaches. The best one we went to was called Hidden Beach, about a 6km bicycle ride (each way) from Hoi An.

Rattan coracles used by fishermen at Hidden Beach, Hoi An

Sunbeds and umbrellas are provided free of charge by the restaurant owners though of course you are expected to buy drinks or food from them.

Spot the rainbow?

We enjoyed our stay in Hoi An and would be happy to go again.

Relaxing Hoi An – It’s that kind of place!

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Hungry Caterpillars

Desert Rose, adenium obesum

A few years back we acquired a pretty pot plant which we think is called Desert Rose (adenium obesum).

Even though the Malaysian climate is damper than its native Africa or Middle East, the Desert Rose has looked after itself and grown steadily fatter while blooming all year round.

So it was annoying to see it looking very sick the other day with almost all its leaves gone.

Desert Rose, adenium obesum

On closer inspection I found nine chubby caterpillars gorging themselves on the few leaves left on the bush.

caterpillar eating Desert Rose, adenium obesumcaterpillar eating Desert Rose, adenium obesum

caterpillar eating Desert Rose, adenium obesumcaterpillar eating Desert Rose, adenium obesum

Eight of these insects were orangey brown while one was green. Perhaps they have the ability to change colour to blend in with their surroundings, like chameleons. They must have strong stomachs because the sap of this plant is said to be deadly poisonous to humans and animals.

caterpillar eating Desert Rose, adenium obesum 

Don’t know what type of butterfly or moth these creatures will transform into but I didn’t want to kill them so I carefully prised them away from their meal and deposited them outside the perimeter of my garden. Not sure if our desert rose is going to recover. Pests!

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Grand Shanghai Food Theme Park, Setia Walk, Puchong

Grand Shanghai Food Theme ParkOne of the best things about living in Malaysia is that there are always plenty of nice places to go and eat, with new restaurants opening up all the time.

Some recent additions to the Klang Valley dining scene can be found at the Setia Walk development in Puchong where there are dozens of restaurants, bars and pubs, including a whole floor of the retail mall given over to the Grand Shanghai Food Theme Park. We took a look.

Grand Shanghai Food Theme ParkGrand Shanghai Food Theme Park, Setia Walk, Puchong

The concept of Grand Shanghai aims to recreate the ambience of old Shanghai during its heyday of the 1930s with narrow lanes and courtyards lined with tea houses, dim sum counters and noodle stalls.

Grand Shanghai Food Theme Park, Setia Walk, PuchongGrand Shanghai Food Theme Park, Setia Walk, Puchong

Props used to decorate this food court include bird cages, fake phone boxes, gramophone players, movie posters and other bric-a-brac from days gone by.

Morris MinorAustin Cambridge?

They haven’t got it quite right. The old cars on display are from the wrong decade (look like 1960s) but most of the young crowd in the mall would not notice the difference and anyway are more interested in the food.

Grand Shanghai Food Theme Park, Setia Walk, PuchongGrand Shanghai Food Theme Park, Setia Walk, Puchong

Apart from food outlets, there are a few shops and stalls selling clothing, accessories and other items. The overall effect of the interior design is rather kitsch but at least the owners deserve credit for trying to create something different in what otherwise would be just another mall.

Grand Shanghai Food Theme Park, Setia Walk, Puchong

In the end, we didn’t eat in Grand Shanghai Food Theme Park and instead we went to a Japanese restaurant located elsewhere in the Setia Walk development. Cheers!

Suntory Premium Malts, Setia Walk, Puchong

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Kyrenia Harbour & The Archangelos Michael Icon Museum

Photo of a painting displayed inside Kyrenia Castle

Kyrenia (Girne in Turkish) is probably the most picturesque town in Cyprus, centred around the horseshoe-shaped harbour and overlooked by the spectacular Five Finger Mountain range.

Kyrenia Harbour

Kyrenia Harbour

Cosy seafood restaurants with outdoor seating areas line the waterfront. It was once a fishing harbour but is now filled with comfortable pleasure craft offering sunset cruises and fishing excursions to tourists.

Kyrenia Castle

Kyrenia Castle

A well preserved castle guards the entrance to the harbour and is one of the town’s top tourist attractions.

Archangelos Michael Icon Museum, Kyrenia

Archangelos Michael Church

Our hotel bedroom overlooked this church which was built in 1860 according to a sign outside. It was converted into the Archangelos Michael Icon Museum in 1990.

Archangelos Michael Icon Museum, Kyrenia

Saint Basileos, Saint John Chrisostomos and Saint Georgios

The museum contains a small but attractive collection of Greek Orthodox religious icons, painted on wood, mostly during the 19th Century.

Archangelos Michael Icon Museum, KyreniaArchangelos Michael Icon Museum, Kyrenia

All Seeing Eye of God, Kyrenia

Somehow both my son and I failed to notice the eye peeking out above Jesus in this photo. We only spotted it while reviewing our photos after returning from our Cyprus holiday.


One Dollar Bill all seeing eye of God

This eye is presumably the ‘all seeing eye of God’ and is quite a widely recognised symbol, perhaps most famously on the back of a one US dollar bill, where its presence triggers all kinds of whacky speculation among America’s more loony conspiracy theorists.

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Famagusta & Salamis

Lala Mustafa Pasa  Mosque, Famagusta

Famagusta (or Gazimağusa in Turkish) is one of the larger towns in Northern Cyprus and is the main port. It would probably have been much bigger by now but the international embargo placed on the Turkish controlled part of Cyprus following the Turkish invasion in 1974 has stunted development of the city, which lies close to the disputed border with the south (Republic of Cyprus).

The absence of development has its benefits for tourism as the historic heart of the old city remains unspoilt behind well-preserved medieval city walls.

Famagusta Port and city walls

The best known landmark within the walled city is the Lala Mustafa Pasa Mosque. This building was formerly St. Nicholas Cathedral and built in the 14th century during the rule of the French Lusignan kings. The main facade, with its 3 large gables and canopied doorways and elaborated rose window above, is said to be modelled after Reims Cathedral.

Lala Mustafa Pasa  Mosque, Famagusta

The upper levels of the two towers were partially destroyed during the Ottoman bombardment of 1571 and when the town finally fell to the Ottomans, the cathedral was converted to a mosque and a minaret added. Stained glass was replaced by clear glass, tombs and altars were removed and frescoes were plastered over but otherwise the interior remains remarkably intact.

Mihrab in Lala Mustafa Pasa Mosque, Famagusta

A mihrab (prayer niche), an imam’s pulpit and wall-to-wall carpeting are the only additions to the interior of the mosque which is still in use today.

Remains of Venetian Royal Palace, Famagusta

The walled city of Famagusta is littered with antiquities and ruins and had it not been for the international embargo, the area would probably have been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site and received vast dollops of cash and expert conservation assistance. For now, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’s Department of Antiquities and Museums seems to be doing a reasonable job in looking after their historical sites.


Ruined stadium, Salamis, Northern Cyprus

The remains of the ancient city of Salamis (nothing to do with sausages) are found around 6km north of Famagusta. Salamis was once the capital of Cyprus and can trace its origins as far back as 1100BC. Many invaders left their mark on the city but most of the ruins visible today are Roman era.

Salamis, Cyprus

The site covers a large area next to the coast. Wars and earthquakes have taken their toll and after Salamis was abandoned, shifting sands covered much of the site. These sands have helped to preserve what is buried underneath and, while part of the site has been excavated, you get the feeling that there must be many more archaeological discoveries waiting to be unearthed. Most excavation worked stopped here after the 1974 invasion.

Amphitheatre, Salamis, Cyprus

Ruins which have been excavated so far include Roman baths and gymnasium, a fish market, reservoir, colonnaded street, roman villa, a stadium, temple of Zeus and 7th century Byzantine walls.

Beach at Salamis, Famagusta

The beaches next to Salamis and elsewhere along Famagusta Bay are among the best in Cyprus with clear water and soft sand.

Sea bream and chips, Salamis, Famagusta

We had a good lunch at the beach-side restaurant at Salamis. Grilled sea bream accompanied by salad and chips, which seem to be served with nearly every meal in Northern Cyprus. Must be the British influence!

King George VI letterbox, Famagusta, Cyprus

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St. Hilarion Castle, Northern Cyprus

St. Hilarion Castle, Northern Cyprus

I seem to have been visiting a lot of castles in recent months – in England, in Wales and, last week, in Northern Cyprus.

Perhaps the most spectacular of those visited is St. Hilarion Castle, perched dramatically on a 700m high outcrop of the Besparmak Mountain range that runs for 160km along Cyprus’s northern coast.

St. Hilarion Castle, Northern Cyprus

From the castle ramparts visitors can enjoy fantastic views overlooking the surrounding area including the historic city of Kyrenia and, on a clear day like this one, it is possible to make out the Turkish coastline some 100km away.

The ruins span multiple levels and quite a hike is involved to reach the highest watch tower at 732m above sea level.

St. Hilarion Castle, Northern Cyprus St. Hilarion Castle, Northern Cyprus

The castle is said to be named after a 10th Century hermit monk who built a rudimentary shelter on the mountain, living off figs, bread, salad and olive oil (still staples of the Turkish Cypriot diet) while performing the odd miracle, which no doubt led to his sainthood.

St. Hilarion Castle, Northern Cyprus

By the 11th Century, the Byzantines had begun construction of fortifications at St. Hilarion intended to protect the island against attacks from the Arabs.

The castle gets a mention in accounts of Richard the Lionheart’s campaign in Cyprus in 1191. Some say he spent his honeymoon at St. Hilarion, following his marriage to Berengaria of Navarre which took place at the Chapel of St. George in Limassol on 12 May 1192. Berengaria, who was crowned Queen of England on the same day, is known as the only English Queen never to have stepped foot in the country while Queen. Richard took his new bride off to the Crusades with him (which seems a mean way to treat her). She returned to Spain after a few months and never saw him again. Their marriage was childless.

St. Hilarion Castle, Northern Cyprus

Much of what remains of the castle today was built by the Lusignans during the 1200’s. If, like me, you are not too familiar with the Lusignans, they were a noble family originating from an area near Lusignan in western France who, through their participation in the crusades, ended up as Kings of Cyprus and Jerusalem, among other places.

St. Hilarion Castle, Northern Cyprus

A poster in the information gallery claims that St. Hilarion Castle was the inspiration for the castle design in Walt Disney’s 1937 animation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. That may or may not be true but St. Hilarion certainly has a fantasy world feel to it and is one of the top tourist attractions in Northern Cyprus.

Walt Disney's castle in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

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Bukit Sapu Tangan

It has been a while since I climbed any hills in Malaysia.

Bukit Sapu Tangan is a baby hill, only 200m or so high, but it provides a good work-out in the sweaty tropical conditions. It is located in Taman Botani Negara Shah Alam (formerly known as Malaysia Agriculture Park).

Taman Botani's new logo

Map showing location of Bukit Sapu Tangan

The red arrow marks the location of Bukit Sapu Tangan, about 6km round trip from the entrance gate of Taman Botani Negara Shah Alam.

I went there yesterday, a public holiday in Malaysia, to take advantage of the light traffic conditions. Taman Botani is a huge park on the outskirts of KL which once formed part of a vast unspoilt forest but is now hemmed in on all sides by the capital’s fast expanding urban sprawl. See this Google Map (link below) to get an idea of how encroaching development is nibbling away at the edges of the park.


Once inside the park you soon forget about the bustle of the city as the sounds, sights and smells of the jungle take over.  Being a public holiday, the main trails within the park were busy, particularly with cyclists as bikes can be hired inside the park. The terrain is quite hilly and unless you are super fit and have a bike with good gears, you end up pushing your bike uphill for much of the way. (Mums and Dads should avoid renting their own bikes as they will spend most of the time pushing their children along).

Taman Botani is good for cycling if you are fit.Bukit Sapu Tangan

The path to Bukit Sapu Tangan is marked with a sign showing a distance of 1.8km. This distance, and the fact that the path becomes narrower and steeper, is enough to put off most visitors and I saw nobody else hiking on this section. But it is still a tarmac path so easy to walk on and no need to worry about snakes and other creepy crawlies. Apart from a few skink lizards, small birds and the sound of monkeys crashing around in the treetops, I did not come across much wildlife.

Peaceful trek through the woods towards Bukit Sapu TanganThe path is made of tarmac so it is suitable for cyclists too (but not allowed on the steep downhill section).

Tall trees line the route.The view tower on top of Bukit Sapu Tangan

At the top of the hill is a concrete and wood view tower from which there was a somewhat hazy view of Shah Alam city centre and beyond.

View of Shah Alam from the top of Bukit Sapu Tangan.

The view from this side gives an idea of the scale of the park but to the rear more new housing developments are underway, threatening the fragile eco-system of this once pristine forest.

New developments encroaching on Taman Botani Negara Shah Alam

Bukit Sapu Tangan translates as Handkerchief Hill. Perhaps its odd name means that you have to take some sort of cloth with you to mop your brow. Or perhaps it refers to the future size of the park once all the planned development projects are finished!

You can find more details about Taman Botani (Malaysia Agriculture Park) on my Malaysia-Traveller website.

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